Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ryu ga Gotoku

Ryu ga Gotoku
Action Adventure - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 8 Slots
1 player

SEGA doesn't have the greatest track record since going third party. But Ryu ga Gotoku ("Yakuza" in US) is widely regarded as a return to form. The development team consists of some former members of Smilebit. Comparisons have been drawn to Shenmue, Grand Theft Auto and even RPGs. While there are definitely elements of each, RgG is mostly an attempt at making an interactive Yakuza film.

To that end, SEGA has done a great job. Everything just oozes style, from the trash talking to the stylized character introductions. The story feels very much like what you would see in cinema, with themes of power, ambition, and loyalty. Even in the criminal underworld, there's a code of honor that they abide by. And it's all supported by great voice acting. The graphic violence further adds to the atmosphere. It's what a yakuza film should be like.

That's not all. The attention to detail is amazing. As you walk around town, the environment really looks and feels like Japan. Special attention goes to the background noise of endless chatter around you, pings and pongs of pachinko parlors, store radios, etc. It also replicates Japanese city life with its crowded and noisy busy streets contrasting the quiet, sleezy backroads. Playing RgG brings back memories of my visits to Tokyo. The attention to detail reminds me a lot of Grandia, although RgG is much more realistic. I love it.

Enough about the atmosphere. How does it play? The best way to describe it is Western RPG with beat'em up battles. See, most of the game takes place in a particular city. There, you have the freedom to walk around, trigger events, and start plenty of sub-quests. Since this game has a more adult edge, you can go to host clubs, strip clubs, and massage parlors. But you can also buy groceries, and eat at the local fast food burger joint. As you walk around, you'll get into random and not-so-random encounters with the local thugs. Surprisingly, the fighting is a lot deeper than I would have expected. I'm normally not one to like beat 'em ups, because of their button mashy nature. But in RgG, you're given a lot of freedom to move around, block, and even a timing-based counter system. These defensive options give the game a strategic edge. It's a fun system. What's also fun are the special moves. When your heat meter is full, you can pull off some cool attacks like face-stomping, slamming opponents against a wall or choking an enemy with a golf club. The neat thing is that many of these heat moves will be shown cinematic-style, with a close-up camera and slow-mo. My favorite move is slamming a bicycle on top of a downed opponent, bending the bike, and then jumping on top of the bike while it's still lying on the enemy. Mmm.

With all these positives, the game still manages to fall short of its promise. First of all, the difficulty is pretty unbalanced. In the beginning of the game, you welcome getting into fights because it's a source of income. But by mid-game, you have all the money you'll ever need. The fights themselves are also very unbalanced. While some of the fights will test your skill, most are pathetically easy. It doesn't necessarily get harder as you go along either. In many ways, it gets easier. That just makes it more infuriating as you try to complete the subquests, and BOOM. Encounter. Add in annoying and plentiful load times, and you'll find that combat gets old fast. Sometimes you'll have a 30 second load transition to the fight, a 10 second fight, and then another 15 second load transition back. Depending on where you go, you could be dragged into encounter after encounter. More load times. More easy button mashing. It's like a jRPG gone wrong.

Not only will you get to hate the meaningless fights, but city exploration will test your patience too. Because each "chapter" of the game is potential for new subquests, the gameplay consists of visiting and revisiting every nook and cranny of the city during each of your free roam sessions. How that's supposed to be fun, I'm not sure. It's just another one of those concepts that sounded cool in theory, but when you actually do it in play, isn't what it's cracked out to be.

Despite my complaints, Ryu ga Gotoku is hardly a bad game. If you want to take part in a yakuza film, SEGA has all the bases covered with great characters, a compelling storyline, and a convincing reproduction of Japanese city life. It also has a fun combat system with unexpected depth. But the game is marred by annoying RPG/adventure elements and an overall easy difficulty, that the combat engine is mostly wasted. As a cinematic experience, RgG is great. I simply would like more attention paid to the "game".